Anybody who's been in state court lately knows the burdens of the foreclosure docket on the judges, clerks, staff, and of course the civil lawyers. It's a mess out there.
It's unclear whether the forced mediation route will lessen the overload, though it does hold some promise:
Right, often times the borrower does not show up, but that can be remedied through education, outreach, and pro bono efforts by legal aid organizations.
A task force convened by the Florida Supreme Court to examine the foreclosure crisis has endorsed that model, likening it to "off-ramps to get traffic off the road."
"In order to cope with the size of the problem, the huge numbers of incoming foreclosure cases, the Task Force concluded that only managed mediation could handle the problem in a consistent manner statewide," said its report, released Aug. 17.
But not all judges are on board.
Thomas McGrady, chief judge for the Sixth Circuit covering Pasco and Pinellas counties, said forcing mediations could be counterproductive and add expense, especially in cases where people have no real hope of keeping their homes.
"We're talking 10 percent maybe that are good candidates for mediation," said McGrady, who heard civil cases in Pinellas before becoming chief judge.
He favors identifying those top candidates and ordering them to the traditional mediation program available for any civil case.
But Gardner worries that unsophisticated borrowers would be at a disadvantage in that setting.
"Chances are, they're not really prepared," she said.
The Task Force report noted that in managed mediation, lenders may pay more up front but come out ahead if people are able to stay in their homes.
"Frankly, these lending institutions don't want the property. They really don't want the property," said Circuit Judge Lowell Bray, who works in New Port Richey. "Who knows what they're going to sell it for and when they're going to sell it?"
But Bray said he refers only a small fraction to mediation simply because most borrowers don't respond at all to the foreclosure suit.
"There is no issue to mediate," he said.
Meanwhile, here's an interesting judge from Brooklyn who handles foreclosure cases his way:
Julius Caesar, Mr. Potter, Kansas City Shuffle -- sign this judge up for the blog!
The judge, Arthur M. Schack, 64, fashions himself a judicial Don Quixote, tilting at the phalanxes of bankers, foreclosure facilitators and lawyers who file motions by the bale. While national debate focuses on bank bailouts and federal aid for homeowners that has been slow in coming, the hard reckonings of the foreclosure crisis are being made in courts like his, and Justice Schack’s sympathies are clear.
He has tossed out 46 of the 102 foreclosure motions that have come before him in the last two years. And his often scathing decisions, peppered with allusions to the Croesus-like wealth of bank presidents, have attracted the respectful attention of judges and lawyers from Florida to Ohio to California. At recent judicial conferences in Chicago and Arizona, several panelists praised his rulings as a possible national model.
His opinions, too, have been greeted by a cry of affront from a bank official or two, who say this judge stands in the way of what is rightfully theirs. HSBC bank appealed a recent ruling, saying he had set a “dangerous precedent” by acting as “both judge and jury,” throwing out cases even when homeowners had not responded to foreclosure motions.
Justice Schack, like a handful of state and federal judges, has taken a magnifying glass to the mortgage industry. In the gilded haste of the past decade, bankers handed out millions of mortgages — with terms good, bad and exotically ugly — then repackaged those loans for sale to investors from Connecticut to Singapore. Sloppiness reigned. So many papers have been lost, signatures misplaced and documents dated inaccurately that it is often not clear which bank owns the mortgage.
Justice Schack’s take is straightforward, and sends a tremor through some bank suites: If a bank cannot prove ownership, it cannot foreclose.
“If you are going to take away someone’s house, everything should be legal and correct,” he said. “I’m a strange guy — I don’t want to put a family on the street unless it’s legitimate.”
Justice Schack has small jowls and big black glasses, a thin mustache and not so many hairs combed across his scalp. He has the impish eyes of the high school social studies teacher he once was, aware that something untoward is probably going on at the back of his classroom.
He is Brooklyn born and bred, with a master’s degree in history and an office loaded with autographed baseballs and photographs of the Brooklyn Dodgers. His written decisions are a free-associative trip through popular, legal and literary culture, with a sideways glance at the business pages.
Confronted with a case in which Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs passed a defaulted mortgage back and forth and lost track of the documents, the judge made reference to the film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the evil banker played by Lionel Barrymore.
“Lenders should not lose sight,” Justice Schack wrote in that 2007 case, “that they are dealing with humanity, not with Mr. Potter’s ‘rabble’ and ‘cattle.’ Multibillion-dollar corporations must follow the same rules in the foreclosure actions as the local banks, savings and loan associations or credit unions, or else they have become the Mr. Potters of the 21st century.”
Last year, he chastised Wells Fargo for filing error-filled papers. “The court,” the judge wrote, “reminds Wells Fargo of Cassius’s advice to Brutus in Act 1, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ ”
Then there is a Deutsche Bank case from 2008, the juicy part of which he reads aloud:
“The court wonders if the instant foreclosure action is a corporate ‘Kansas City Shuffle,’ a complex confidence game,” he reads. “In the 2006 film ‘Lucky Number Slevin,’ Mr. Goodkat, a hit man played by Bruce Willis, explains: ‘A Kansas City Shuffle is when everybody looks right, you go left.’ ”The banks’ reaction? Justice Schack shrugs. “They probably curse at me,” he says, “but no one is interested in some little judge.”